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Tuesday, 11 September 2012 17:14

The Market for Surrealism is Sizzling

As the wider Impressionist and modern market slowly withers on the auction vine — the victim of a paucity of first-rate material — the international market for Surrealism has started to sizzle. Interest in the erotically preoccupied mid-century movement languished for decades as collectors lavished money and attention on Impressionist and Fauve art. Yet in the last two years, works by the handful of brand name artists associated with Surrealism — Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, René Magritte, and Joan Miró — are taking center stage.

In June at the Christie’s London Impressionist and modern sales, for example, Magritte’s darkly menacing “Les jours gigantesques,” 1928, depicting a violent struggle between a clothed man and a naked woman and remarkable for the illusionistic effect of one body superimposed on and merging with the other, sold to the New York financier Wilbur Ross for £7.2 million ($11.3 million) on an estimate of £800,000 to £1.5 million. Ross outgunned a posse of competitors, including London dealer Daniella Luxembourg.

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Art buyers rarely yearned for Old Masters as intensely as they appeared to do this week. Sadly, auction houses never had so few desirable pictures to offer them.

The bidders’ eagerness was reflected in surprising world records set for works that would hardly have caused such a sensation only a decade ago.

At Christie’s Tuesday sale, the two highest prices were realized by 18th century English school pictures that appealed to a limited constituency until fairly recently.

True, the huge £22.44 million, or $35.79 million, paid for “Gimcrack on New Market Heath,” painted by Stubbs and portraying a famous racehorse that had belonged to Lord Bolingbroke, was an artificial price achieved through a now all too common procedure publicly spelled out.

Before opening the session, Christie’s auctioneer, James Bruce-Gardyne, informed the room that “a third party” was financing a guarantee given to the vendor. This did not just ensure the consignor that he would be paid a minimum amount whether the picture sold or failed to do so. It also meant that the financial burden of failure risk was transferred from Christie’s to the “third party,” who would become the owner of the Stubbs at the “guaranteed” level if it remained unwanted. The said party was contractually entitled to participate in the bidding in order to raise prices to whatever level it wished, thus skewing the spontaneous character that auction bidding is supposed to have.

The financed guarantee procedure is in itself a sign of the desperate efforts that auction houses make to secure top-level works of art for sale as supplies keep vanishing. It tends to be used when pictures are billed with some exaggeration as masterpieces of stellar importance.

While Christie’s team sang the Stubbs to high heaven, blatant weaknesses might have limited its appeal. The trainer who clutches the horse’s bridle and the stable lad are as stiff as Madame Tussaud’s waxen figures and the outhouse in the distance is painted with curiously amateurish clumsiness.

As far as I could tell, only one bid came in, allowing the Stubbs to sell at the low estimate. Had the history of the horse not been recorded in minute detail, the bland picture could never have fetched its phenomenal price.

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